A Look at Life as an Occupational Therapy Student

I talk a lot about nurse practitioners and physician assistants here at ThriveAP. But, there are several other nursing-related professions available to students interested in the medical field. If you’re looking at a graduate-level medical education, it’s worth exploring your options to see what’s out there in regards to your future career. Today, I had a chance to sit down with Emily, a once aspiring nurse practitioner turned occupational therapy student, to get her take on choosing a future career.

Here’s a peek at our conversation. 

Me: What made you want to pursue a career in occupational therapy?

Emily: I always thought I wanted to become a nurse. As my view and knowledge of healthcare expanded, I landed on a career path as a dermatology nurse practitioner. Midway through my undergraduate education, I realized I wasn’t passionate about nursing. So, I met with a career advisor at my university to explore my options. After doing some research, I decided physical therapy could be a good fit for me. To be confident in my decision, I set up a job shadow with a physical therapist.

The physical therapist I shadowed worked closely with an occupational therapist and a speech therapist. I found myself drawn to the occupational therapist rather than the physical therapist. So, I began shadowing the OT as well. I liked how occupational therapy was medical but had a substantial creative aspect. It gave a lot of room to explore different interventions and treatments. I have a creative bent and like to build things so the fact that in OT you can take anything, literally anything, and turn it into an intervention is fun for me.

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Me: What types of things are you learning in your occupational therapy program?

Emily: My program is essentially set up in sections by type of patient population. First, we focus on the foundations of occupational therapy and psychosocial assessments to set the stage for the rest of our program. Then, we move on to pediatrics studying developmental stages, sensory issues in children and different developmental disorders. This semester our courses primarily concern adult populations including topics like physical dysfunction, mobility issues and adaptive equipment.

Me: How much time do you spend in class vs. clinicals? What does your student schedule look like?

Emily: Our schedule is in more of a block format with some weeks consisting almost entirely of class time and other weeks devoted completely to hands-on clinical experience. In the first semester of our program we complete ‘Field Work Level 1’. This consists of 3 or 4 one-week sessions in various occupational therapy settings. Level 1 clinical work is essentially job shadowing.

‘Field Work Level 2’ is a more advanced clinical experience consisting of two sessions, each three months in length. During Level 2 clinical experiences, OT students essentially function as occupational therapists taking on their own partial case load while supervised by a practicing OT. Most students rotate through a variety of clinical settings including pediatrics, school-based occupational therapy, an adult setting and a skilled nursing facility.

In addition to our clinicals, or ‘Field Work’, we have multiple labs and other hands-on experiences throughout our program. For example, last week we completed a cadaver lab. Other hands-on experiences have included a feeding workshop and a visit to a nursing home to learn skills like patient transfers.

Me: What do you find most challenging about your clinical experience so far as an occupational therapy student?

Emily: Learning to be confident in my skills in the field is difficult as a student and takes time. Documentation is also a struggle as an occupational therapist, and particularly during the learning process as a student. The way medical charts are worded and the goals we set as occupational therapists determine how and if insurance carriers will cover a patient’s care. Some documentation systems are complex and may require a three-page note for a single patient. While my documentation skills are improving with time, it takes a long time to learn the ins and outs of the system.

Me: What has been the most surprising thing to you so far about your experience as an OT student?

Emily: I went into my occupational therapy program set on a future career in pediatrics. Surprisingly, during my SNF rotation, I discovered I also love working in geriatrics. Now, I’m torn between the two.

Me: What advice do you have for future occupational therapy students to help set them up for success in an OT program?

Emily: Find local organizations to volunteer with, even if it seems out of your comfort zone. For example, I recently volunteered with GiGi’s Playhouse, on organization helping kids with Down’s Syndrome. I was nervous about leading a volunteer group and had limited experience working with children who have Down’s. But, through volunteering I learned a lot and had the chance to network with other OTs.

I would also recommend doing your prerequisite occupational therapy job shadowing in multiple settings You never know what you will end up liking. It helps not to be narrow minded as you enter your program.

Thanks to Emily for sharing her experiences as an occupational therapy student!


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